October 10, 2017

War and the Party

The most audible dissent inside the 2016 Democratic National Convention came during the two speeches that most forcefully touted policies of perpetual war. Former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta was taken aback when delegates repeatedly interrupted his primetime address with chants of “No more war.” The next night, just after Gen. John Allen encountered the same chant during the convention’s final session, the Washington Post cited poll numbers that indicated the chanting delegates represented a substantial portion of views among Democrats nationwide.

The wisdom of continual war was far clearer to the party’s standard bearer than it was to people in the U.S. communities bearing the brunt of combat deaths, injuries and psychological traumas. After a decade and a half of nonstop warfare, research data from voting patterns suggest that the Clinton campaign’s hawkish stance was a political detriment in working-class communities hard-hit by American casualties from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Even controlling in a statistical model for many other alternative explanations, we find that there is a significant and meaningful relationship between a community’s rate of military sacrifice and its support for Trump,” concluded a study by Boston University’s Douglas Kriner and Francis Shen at the University of Minnesota. The professors wrote: “Our statistical model suggests that if three states key to Trump’s victory — Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin — had suffered even a modestly lower casualty rate, all three could have flipped from red to blue and sent Hillary Clinton to the White House.”

Clinton’s warlike record and campaign positions helped Trump to have it both ways, playing to jingoism while masquerading as an opponent of the protracted wars that had disillusioned so many Americans. The ongoing Clinton embrace of militarism abetted Trump’s efforts to gain media coverage that framed him as the relatively noninterventionist candidate.

In their study, Professors Kriner and Shen said that Democrats may want to “reexamine their foreign policy posture if they hope to erase Trump’s electoral gains among constituencies exhausted and alienated by 15 years of war.” But while public support for ongoing war on many fronts has ebbed, the Democratic Party’s top leadership has continued to avidly back it. This disconnect not only depresses enthusiasm and support — reflected in donations, volunteer energies, turnout and votes — from the party’s traditional base; it also undermines Democratic capacities to draw in voters who identify as independent or have gravitated to another party.

As with its allegiance to trade agreements that benefit large corporations at the expense of American workers, the top of the party remains woefully out of touch with voters who do not share elite enthusiasm for endless war. Much as the national Democratic Party has ceded economic “populism” to Donald Trump and certain right-wing elements, Democratic leadership has largely ceded the anti-interventionist terrain to some elements of the GOP — as well as to the Libertarian and Green parties, whose antiwar presidential candidates Gary Johnson and Jill Stein received 4.33 percent of the popular vote between them in 2016, nearly 6 million votes.

The most influential think tanks and media outlets routinely treat adherence to military-industrial-complex orthodoxy as a prerequisite for acceptable candidates. But many voters have other ideas. If anything should be learned from the 2016 presidential election, it is that the inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom holds much more sway with Democratic Party elites than it does with the electorate.

While abdicating responsibility in profound moral dimensions, the Democratic Party leadership has continued to sidestep the immediate, cumulative and long-term negative effects of perpetual war. Overwhelmingly, national party leaders have remained tethered to conventional wisdom that keeps this country engaged in a self-propagating “war on terror” on several continents. Top-ranking congressional Democrats have rarely responded to Republican militarism with a message other than “us too,” or “us too, even more so.” This party-line reflex prevents the Democratic Party from appealing to the anti-interventionist sentiments of large numbers of Americans who question policies of continuous war.

The platform of Justice Democrats notes that “the United States maintains 800 military bases worldwide at a cost of $100 billion a year” — and “this is money that can be spent at home creating jobs, rebuilding infrastructure, and investing in the future of the people.” The organization adds: “The disastrous war in Iraq cost trillions, the war in Afghanistan is 15 years in with no end in sight, and we’re currently bombing seven different countries. We spend more on our military than the next eight countries combined. Despite countless lives lost and destroyed, terrorism has only gotten worse.”

Given that the all-volunteer U.S. military gains recruits in a social context of extreme income inequality, a de facto “economic draft” puts the heaviest burdens of war on the working class. Those burdens have largely worn out their welcome. Yet Democratic Party leaders have rarely made an issue out of the spiraling military costs or the long-term consequences of what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the madness of militarism.” While frequently invoking the legacy of Dr. King, the Democratic leadership has had no use for his cogent warnings about the home-front ravages of war. In a landmark 1967 speech at New York’s Riverside Church, Dr. King deplored the priorities of a bipartisan establishment demonstrating its “hostility to the poor” — appropriating “military funds with alacrity and generosity,” but providing “poverty funds with miserliness.” Fifty years later, the vast majority of Democratic leaders go along with such warfare-state priorities.

Like the Clinton-Kaine campaign, the national Democratic Party’s 2016 platform was in tune with foreign-policy approaches popular among elites. A bloated military budget remained sacrosanct and uncuttable (except for the bromide of eliminating “waste”). Giving a thumbs-up to U.S. war efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and beyond, the platform endorsed continual U.S. warfare that has expanded to many parts of the globe since late 2001. That warfare has been terribly harmful to countless people — but hugely lucrative for military contractors. Overall, the Democratic Party leadership has refused to make a distinction between truly defending the United States and waging interventionist wars. The party’s top leaders have conflated U.S. warfare in many nations with defense of our country. This stance is politically damaging and vastly destructive.

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